Too little, too late from Obama in Africa

While Barack Obama neglects Africa in favour of China, Beijing has already pivoted to the fast-growing African continent – and is reaping rich benefits.

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FT.com

History does not repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes. The fact that Barack Obama’s first real presidential trip to Africa coincides with the closing moments of Nelson Mandela’s life could never have been scripted. It is an eerily moving moment. America’s first black president enters the stage just as South Africa’s first black president is taking a bow. No one should doubt Obama when he describes the great freedom fighter as his “personal hero”.

And yet Africans could be forgiven for wondering how long Obama’s renewed interest in Africa will last. Having spent a total of 20 hours on the continent in his first term – on a 2009 stopover in Ghana – Obama’s six-day tour is meant to underline a new phase in US-Africa relations. The age of foreign aid is passing, say US officials. Seven out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa. Yet it is China - and increasingly Turkey, India and Brazil – that is reaping the new investment opportunities. Now is Obama’s chance to put that to rights.

Obama’s style of doing business, and particularly his diplomacy, does not lend much confidence that his interest will be sustained. With the exception of China, where his engagement has been intensive, Obama’s standard approach is to touch down, give a great speech, proclaim lofty goals, then move on. Such fleetingness might be expected of US presidents, who have real and potential Middle Eastern wars to manage, and a thousand other headaches. That is why they should create clear strategies for others to execute. Alas, there is no clear Obama strategy for Africa. Nor, for that matter, for the Middle East.

Does it matter? Yes. Geopolitics is about the long game. Both Bill Clinton, who pushed through the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which gave African exporters duty-free access to the US market, and George W Bush, who set up Pepfar, which has helped save the lives of hundreds of thousands of African victims of HIV-Aids, put in place modest but durable programs to engage and assist Africa.  Obama has inherited both. But he has nothing equivalent to show on his own account.

The backdrop could hardly be more auspicious. It is during Obama’s term in office that Africa has begun to break through as the next big emerging market frontier. Yet it is a fair bet that 90 per cent of the time Obama has so far spent on Africa has been swallowed by US counter-terrorism operations, which now range from the Sahel through the Magreb to the Horn of Africa. Last week, the US announced that it was opening a predator drone base in Niger. In parts of Mali, Yemen and Somalia, the US drone is becoming almost as familiar as it is in Pakistan’s tribal areas. According to the Pew Research Centre, 81 per cent of Senegalese approve of the US – a strikingly positive number given that Senegal is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. The US needs to be careful not to “Pakistanise” its engagement with the top third of the African continent. Drones are no substitute for engagement.

Second, China is playing a long game. There have been reports of growing African – and, for that matter, Latin American and central Asian – resentment at China’s mercantilist ways. Some accuse Beijing of neo-colonialism, since it is extracting raw materials and then exporting finished goods back to their source. All of which may be fair, but China is no fly-by-night operator. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Chinese investment in African manufacturing almost equals its investments in commodities. China-Africa trade has shot up more than tenfold since 2000 to just under $170 billion in 2012 – twice the level of US-Africa trade. It has more than 150 commercial attaches in sub-Saharan Africa, against just six for the US.

During Obama’s first term, Hu Jintao, then China’s president, visited Africa seven times. Within weeks of taking over from Hu in March, Xi Xingping went on a three-nation tour of Africa (two of which, Tanzania and South Africa, Obama is also visiting). Officials at the multilateral lending institutions talk about Africa’s increasing readiness to junk their advice and take China’s less preachy money instead. Last year Obama had an opportunity to help relegitimise the World Bank in Africa by appointing Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister and a Bretton Woods veteran, as its president. Obama did not feel the time was ripe to relinquish America’s hold on that position. It implies no disrespect to Jim Yong Kim, the Korean-American who was given the job, to say it was a missed opportunity.

The Middle East aside, Obama’s second term is about executing his “pivot to Asia”. But as Vali Nasr, the former state department aide to the late Richard Holbrooke, has pointed out, China itself is pivoting to pretty much everywhere else in the world, including Africa.

Whether America’s goal is to contain or to engage China, the playing field is global. Neither drones nor quadrennial visits will be a substitute for the unglamorous business of constructing long-term relationships. Obama has made a belated start on the African continent. Let us hope it marks a new approach to Africa that will be linked to Obama’s larger Asia strategy. Call it joined up diplomacy. With almost four years left in office, he has time to put it to effect.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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